Show some courage! Defy your tribe!
Someday the world, and maybe even your tribe, will thank you.
By Robert Wright from Robert Wright’s Nonzero Newsletter
(available on Substack)
Last week LeBron James, who has 50 million Twitter followers, tweeted a picture of a policeman in Columbus, Ohio who had shot a 16-year-old Black girl to death. The tweet said, “You’re next. #Accountability.”
Coming right after the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, the tweet seemed to mean that this cop, like Chauvin, would be convicted of murder and imprisoned—though some took James’s message as more menacing: a threat of vigilante justice.
On either interpretation, the tweet didn’t make sense. The cop’s body cam had captured the killing, and the video told this story:
A cop responding to a 911 call arrives on the scene and sees the 16-year-old, Ma’Khia Bryant, with a knife in her hand, approaching another girl. The other girl is backed up against a parked car, with no means of escape, as Bryant draws the knife back and seems poised to stab her. The cop opens fire.
There are good questions you can ask about the cop’s conduct. Couldn’t he have fired one shot, not four? Or, instead of shooting Bryant, could he have rushed her, hoping any stabbing attempt would be ineffective and he could wrestle her to the ground before she did real damage? But if I were the girl the knife was pointed at, I probably wouldn’t be complaining about the decisions he made. In any event, he acted within standard policing guidelines, which say you can use your gun to end a lethal threat to yourself or anyone else.
During the first couple of days after the shooting, my Twitter feed, which tilts to the left, featured a number of tweets that, like James’s, condemned the cop. And it contained almost no tweets making the point I just made—that, though this was a white cop shooting a Black person, it was also a white cop shooting someone who seemed to be trying to stab a Black person.
I sensed a need for someone—like me, for example—to push against the prevailing narrative, to tweet something that might help clarify things. So what did I tweet? Nothing. Why? Because I lacked courage. I just didn’t feel up to dealing with blowback from people on Twitter who, forced to choose between evaluating your argument and attacking you, reliably opt for thermonuclear war.
I’m more and more convinced that there are lots of people like me out there. No, I don’t mean cowards. And I don’t just mean people who think there are too many misleading and inflammatory social media posts by influential people. Obviously, lots of people in red America think there are too many of those posts coming from blue America and lots of people in blue America think there are too many of those posts coming from red America.
What I mean is that there are lots of people who think there are too many of those posts coming from their own tribe—whether red or blue or some other tribe—but are afraid to speak up about it.
I say we start speaking up! Here are some reasons that, at least from my own tribal perspective, speaking up seems like a good idea.
1) If my tribe doesn’t seize the moment, the other tribe will. Ben Shapiro, formerly an editor at Breitbart and currently a right-wing troll, got tons of mileage out of a tweetcomplaining that liberals were resisting the truth about the Columbus shooting. He’d have gotten at least somewhat less mileage if liberals hadn’t in fact seemed to be resisting the truth about the Columbus shooting. When your tribe is denying something that’s obviously true because it doesn’t fit into your tribe’s standard menu of talking points, that’s often a gift to the other tribe. And it can add to the power of people in the other tribe who seize the moment. I personally don’t want to add to Ben Shapiro’s power.
2) If my tribe doesn’t seize the moment, the world will be more likely to enter a spiral of doom. You knew this was coming, right? After all, if I couldn’t connect the theme of courage to the apocalypse, why would I be writing about courage in a newsletter that is devoted to the Apocalypse Aversion Project?
You may ask: But isn’t apocalypse aversion largely about international politics—avoiding wars, building structures of international governance to tackle problems nations can’t tackle alone, and so on? Yes, but:
It’s hard to build coherent international governance on a foundation of incoherent nations. An America lacking in cohesion, divided along red-blue lines, won’t have the political will to do ambitious, politically difficult things. Such as: crafting and then participating in new forms of international cooperation designed to prevent things like pandemics, environmental calamities, and arms races in space or in bioweapons or in AI.
To get a little more granular: Doing these things will require convincing some skeptical Americans—definitely including some who are right of center—that these things make sense. And these Americans will be hard to convince if the people trying to convince them come from a tribe they hate—all the more so if one reason they hate the tribe is because it can’t be trusted to gets its facts straight (like when it accuses cops of racism or murder even when there’s no good evidence of either).
In short: standing up to your own tribe can strengthen its ability to argue persuasively for important policies, including anti-apocalypse policies.
There’s another sense in which courage can aid in the building of good international governance. It takes a little explaining, but the explanation begins with a simple, almost self-evident premise: It’s hard to build coherent international governance on a foundation of international division. Obviously, the more time nations spend at odds—whether fighting actual wars, engaging in tense standoffs, or enduring chilly relations—the less likely international cooperation is.
Now, sometimes being at odds with other nations is the only real option. If a country invades another country, or egregiously mistreats its own people, pushing back against that, sometimes forcefully, can make sense.
But in some cases we overdo the pushback, and one common reason is that we overstate the transgressions we’re pushing back against. Often the way this works is that people who are deeply invested in hostility toward a country exaggerate its transgressions, and hardly anybody has the courage to challenge the exaggeration.
The exaggeration isn’t always, or even usually, intentional. Often people who agitate against, say, Russia or China feel (like LeBron James) that they’re just telling the truth. And sometimes they are. But various cognitive biases make it quite possible that they’re wrong—that they’re unconsciously exaggerating how menacing a country is or how cruel it is to its own people. Depending on the nature of their claims and the prevailing zeitgeist, it can take courage to challenge them.
For example: During the runup to the 2003 Iraq War, it took courage to challenge the claim that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. And by “challenge” I don’t mean denying that he was building them—I just mean saying, “Are we really sure about this?” It’s hard to explain to people who are too young to remember those days why it wasn’t easy to ask a question like that. But the mass psychology of a moralistic rush to war is a strangely powerful thing.
Some kinds of pro-war narratives are especially hard to challenge. In the runup to the earlier war against Iraq, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, a Kuwaiti teenager testified before a congressional committee that while she was volunteering in a Kuwaiti hospital she had watched as Iraqi soldiers “took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the children to die on the cold floor.” President Bush repeated that story 10 times in the coming weeks, as support for invading Iraq grew.
Who wants to challenge a Kuwaiti teenager who tells a story like that? Who wants to be called an “apologist” for baby killers? Nobody. But it turned out she was lying. Two years later we learned that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and had been coached by the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton.
But that’s all in the past! And the past is where it’s easy to find examples like that. Finding them in the present is harder. One reason is that it takes courage to sound a note of skepticism about such claims in real time, when emotions are running high. So they tend not to get investigated until after they’ve done their damage.
Right now there are good examples of this—claims about bad behavior by foreign actors that may, for all we know, be exaggerated or even flat-out wrong. You can find examples having to do with the governments of Russia, China, Iran, and Syria. Want to hear about them? Sorry, I’m not feeling that courageous at the moment. But I’ll get back to some of them soon in this newsletter.
Meanwhile, I close on a note of hope: After a period of reflection, LeBron James deleted his tweet.